Three times in the last 18 months the UK has seen COVID cases rise sharply. Three times the government has imposed national restrictions. Now cases are up again, but in a post-vaccine world the government is very resistant to go down that road. Will they be forced to?
Smarkets punters say yes, albeit only narrowly. I suspect no is the better trading bet, but again with much uncertainty.
Vaccines have heavily shifted the risk factors. The July 2021 case spike reached levels almost on par with January 2021, but deaths were a fraction. While the January spike saw a 7 day rolling average over 1,000 deaths per day, the recent rise has barely cleared 100 deaths daily.
100 people every day is still a lot of deaths (for context, roughly 1,500 people die on all causes in the UK each day), and each is a tragedy to that person and their loved ones. But for a government which must weigh up the costs and benefits of each policy it adopts, the difference is considerable.
Additionally, it seems the government simply doesn’t want to impose new restrictions. In June a brief delay to the lifting of restrictions only made it through the Commons thanks to Labour support, and it was said* that a further delay (beyond 19 July) wasn’t contemplated despite rising cases because Johnson refused to rely on opposition support again.
The libertarian wing of the party was large enough pre-vaccine rollout. If Johnson needs MPs to vote for any future restrictions I suspect he will struggle to find enough purely on his side of the aisle.
More recently, the government abandoned plans to impose ‘vaccine passports’ on nightclubs and other venues – albeit saying that they might be used over winter. Rumours about Johnson’s personal position on restrictions have flown thick and fast for over a year, but clearly a reluctance to continue or impose restrictions has been the position of the government since late summer.
So will the government ratchet up restrictions later this year? I think probably not. The imminent wave may be fading already, cases have seemingly peaked (while deaths still rise, one would expect it to follow suit after a short delay as hospitalisations have). A winter wave would have to be very substantial to force the government’s hand. Johnson was hugely reluctant to ‘cancel Christmas’ last year, I suspect the bar to late-winter measures will be very high this time around.
However, there is one big risk for betting on this market: The rules are very broad on what would count as ‘COVID restrictions’. The rules will be met if any restriction was brought in which was ‘mandatory, implemented by the UK government, England-wide, and legally enforceable’. Crucially, vaccine passports would be sufficient, even though they arguably don’t limit social contact (on the basis that all adults could freely obtain one).
For this reason, I am much less confident of my position on this than I was prior to the recent rule clarification, and while I don’t mind my bets I will not be increasing my stake and hoping to even trade out if the price shortens when daily deaths hopefully does fall. A winter COVID spike could certainly trigger limited, but bet-busting, measures.
If you do wager on this market then keep a particularly close eye on it. The government has said it may introduce new measures with mere days notice.
*I can’t find a source for this, it was something I saw journalists saying on Twitter at the time. Tory MPs off the record, etc.
Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. He has bets on there being no further restrictions during 2021 at roughly 7/4. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts